If you are in Banbury, maybe visiting Thenford Arboretum, then the trip between town and garden can also take in three ancient churches.
Northamptonshire is known as the county of “spires and squires”, and these three churches live up to the claim.
St Mary Warkworth
This was for me the one I was most interested in visiting, if mainly because it’s in the middle of an empty field.
It wasn’t once, as the area once included a castle and Jacobean house, but all were torn down 200 years ago. The church survived but decayed until restored in the 1830s and 1860s.
Getting to the church today, if coming from Banbury is via the Overthorpe Road over the M40, and then you’ll see a small sign pointing to a footpath through the fields and at the far end a church. Through a couple of gates and you’re in the churchyard.
Sadly as a sign of the times, a notice that the church lacks a lead roof. In normal times, the church is open to visitors, but not at the moment. A large tree had just been felled around the back opening up the area with baren soil and a lot of wood chippings.
A stone wall surrounds the churchyard that’s elevated above the level of the fields, probably because it’s been pilled up over the centuries with the dead. A curious circular insert is inside the wall.
The Payne, Cannon and Carter families seem to dominate the graves, but there’s also the grave of a Dutchman and his wife from Trinidad.
I rather unfortunately assumed from maps that the footpath went all the way across the fields, but it doesn’t so back-track slightly and just on the other side of the hedge is a shorter footpath to the main road again.
All Saints Middleton Cheney
Although this church is in the middle of the town of Middleton Cheney, you can see it from a couple of miles away thanks to the very tall steeple.
There’s been a church on the site since the 1300s, although the current building was heavily renovated by the Victorian architect Gilbert Scott in 1865, who also introduced stained glass windows by many of the Pre Raphaelite artists, particularly Burne-Jones and William Morris.
Sadly, the church was closed on my visit, so I had to admire the stained glass from the outside. Churches are more often open in the countryside, but with pandemic bans on using them, they were more often than not closed.
What really stands out for this church, from the outside at least, is the large graveyard that wraps around the building, and has a number of listed graves. One while looks grander than most, but isn’t listed is the Horton family mausoleum.
This is a part of England where the name Horton crops up a lot, giving it a very Vicar of Dibley feel to it.
St Mary’s Thenford
Situated at the bottom of the village of Thenford, a walk across a small field and, with a struggle, the gate opened to a delightful sunken church. The graveyard is very deeply piled up, giving the approach a feeling of walking down a valley at times. The door is closed but unlocked.
Like the others so far visited, this church also dates to around the 1300s, although some of it, mainly the south door, part of the aisle and the east window could be a century earlier.
The font is Norman, the chancel screen is 14th-century and the Poor Box is 15th-century. The stained glass that survives in part is also 15th-century,
One impressive object to find is the recessed tomb of a former manor house owner, Fulk de Woodhull, who died in 1613. He was the local Lord of the Manor who also had a tendency to call himself a Baron, even though he wasn’t.
Do take time to notice the encaustic tiles that can be seen next to the carpet that protects the rest of the floor. Although the other door was also open on a warm day, the number of floor heaters dotted around the church suggest both that it’s very cold in winter, but also heavily used.
And as you’re here, if on the right day, visit the arboretum.